Born in Hatfield, Massachusetts, Dickinson was a member of the fifth class to graduate, in 1706, from the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which later changed its name to Yale College. He studied theology and in 1709, when he was twenty-one, was ordained minister of the church in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey.
Dickinson served this church all his life, ministering to his flock as pastor, lawyer, physician and, in later years, as an instructor of young men preparing for professional study. Besides Elizabethtown, his field of labor embraced the outlying towns of Rahway, Westfield, Connecticut Farms, Springfield, and a part of Chatham. At one time, when diphtheria became epidemic, he was called to visit a family that lost eight of its ten children in two weeks, and, finding one of the children ``newly dead,'' had the advantage of postmortem examination and ``thereby a better acquaintance with the Nature of the Disease.'' He published a paper, Observations on That Terrible Disease, Vulgarly Called The Throat Distemper, which according to a latter-day historian of medicine, ``evidenced a mind skilled in the appreciation of morbid phenomena . . . and an enlarged knowledge, for his time, of the principles of cure.''
The Elizabethtown church was originally Congregational, as was Dickinson, but because he felt a need for stronger ties with other churches in meeting the Church of England's opposition to New Jersey dissenters, he persuaded his congregation in 1717 to change its form of government and place itself under the care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Dickinson became a leader of this presbytery and also of the higher ecclesiastical body of which it was a member -- the Synod of Philadelphia, which twice elected him moderator.
As a former Congregationalist he exerted a moderating influence on the deliberations of his Presbyterian colleagues. In 1721 he protested an action of the synod that he thought exceeded its legitimate powers. The following year, he presented a paper on ``the true limits of church power'' so persuasively that the synod adopted it unanimously and then closed the meeting with ``joyful singing'' from the 133rd Psalm: ``Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!''
In 1729 Dickinson opposed a proposal that every minister in the Synod of Philadelphia should be required ``to give his hearty assent'' to the Westminster Confession of Faith. While personally accepting the doctrine set forth in the Confessions and Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly Dickinson held on principle that the imposition of any creed was an infringement of the individual clergyman's rights.
At the same time Dickinson defended Presbyterianism from external criticism, publishing frequent articles in this cause. These earned him a reputation second only to Jonathan Edward's as a champion of Calvinism in America and as a writer on divinity. A century later, President Maclean wrote that ``for profound thinking, but not always correct [italics his], he would assign the palm to Edwards; but for sound judgment and practical wisdom, to Dickinson.'' Dickinson's best-known book, Familiar Letters to a Gentleman, upon a Variety of Seasonable and Important Subjects in Religion, was frequently reprinted both here and abroad.
Dickinson was one of the leaders of a movement to found a ``seminary of learning'' in the Synod of Philadelphia. He and Ebenezer Pemberton, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in New York, were members of a committee appointed in 1739 to plan a fund-raising expedition to Great Britain for this purpose, but their plans had to be tabled when war broke out between England and Spain.
Meanwhile, the influence of the Great Awakening (The Founding of Princeton) brought a division between the ``New Sides'' and the ``Old Sides'' in the Presbyterian Church. Dickinson and his associates in the Presbytery of New York, which he had helped form in 1738, were moderate New Siders who, while encouraging revivals, opposed their more violent excesses. They nevertheless defended the rights of the more zealous graduates of the Log College in their disputes with the Old Sides. When the Log College-dominated Presbytery of New Brunswick was expelled from the Synod of Philadelphia in 1741, and Dickinson and his associates were unable to bring about a reconciliation, they withdrew in 174~5 to form, in association with the Presbytery of New Brunswick, the Synod of New York, and Dickinson was elected the first moderator.
Dickinson now revived his earlier interest in a much-needed college for the Middle Colonies. He was disappointed by Harvard's and Yale's opposition to the revival meetings of George Whitefield and by Yale's harsh treatment of his young friend, David Brainerd, who was dismissed because of his outspoken opposition to the faculty's conservative religious views. He also felt that the course of instruction offered by the Log College was inadequate.
It was against this background that Dickinson and three other pastors -- Pemberton, Aaron Burr, Sr., and John Pierson -- and the three laymen whose support they enlisted -- William Smith, Peter Van Brugh Livingston, and William Peartree Smith -- began to plan the founding of the College. Led by Dickinson, this group applied in vain to Governor Lewis Morris for a charter and, following his death, renewed their application to Acting Governor John Hamilton, who granted a charter on October 22, 1746.
The first trustees, including five Log College adherents enlisted by Dickinson and Pemberton, announced Dickinson's appointment as president in April 1747. Classes began the fourth week in May in Elizabethtown, with a student body of eight or ten members. One of Dickinson's divinity students, Caleb Smith, served as tutor and the parsonage served as the Colleg~e -- the only library available was Dickinson's, the classroom was probably his parlor, and the refectory his dining room. But the first months of the College's life were the last of Dickinson's. His sudden death on October 7, 1747, was reported in The New York Weekly Post Boy by his long-time coworker for the College, Ebenezer Pemberton:
Elizabethtown in New Jersey, October 10
``On Wednesday morning last, about four o'clock, died here, of a pleuritic illness, that eminently learned and pious minister of the Gospel and President of the College of New Jersey, the Rev. Mr. Jonathan Dickinson, in the sixtieth year of his age, who had been Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in this Town for nearly forty years, and was the Glory and Joy of it. In him conspicuously appeared those natural and acquired moral and spiritual Endowments which constitute a truly excellent and valuable man, a good Scholar, an eminent Divine, and a serious, devout Christian. . . . By his death our Infant College is deprived of the Benefit and Advantage of his superior Accomplishments. . . . Never any Person in these Parts died more lamented.''
The portrait of President Dickinson in the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall was copied from an engraving prefixed to the Glasgow edition of his Familiar Letters and was presented to the College by the artist, Edward Ludlow Mooney, in 1872.
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